In the early years of the 20th century, Gopal Krishna Gokhale remarked that ‘what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow’. We can see the truth of Gokhale’s statement in the lives of Bengal’s intellectuals and thinkers – Raja Ram Mohan Roy (22 May 1772 – 27 September 1833) a prominent Indian social reformer, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (26 September 1820 – 29 July 1891) a key figure of the Bengal Renaissance, Swami Vivekananda ( 12 January 1863 – 4 July 1902) a key figure in the introduction of the Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the Western world, Subhas Chandra Bose (23 January 1897 – 18 August 1945) a prince among patriots and Rabindranath Tagore, the national poet.
We feel exceptionally proud of Tagore. Tagore was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, he played a pivotal role in modernise the Bengali art and last but not least he composed the national anthems of two nations; India’s Jana Gana Mana and Bangladesh’s Amar Shonar Bangla, even the national anthem of Sri Lanka was inspired by his work. What is less known to us is Tagore’s political thoughts and his influence on both Gandhi and Nehru. He denounced nationalism ( read xenophobia ) and his dislike of communalism and nationalism only deepened with each passing days.
To emphasis the pluralistic approach of Tagore I would like to share an excerpt from his letter to Mahatma Gandhi in March 1933 –
” It is needless to say that I do not relish the idea of Divinity being enclosed in a brick and morter temple for the special purpose of exploitation by a particular group of people…We know a sect in Bengal, illiterate and not dominated by Brahminical tradition, who enjoy a perfect freedom of worship profoundly universal in character…The traditional idea of Godhead and conventional forms of worship hardly lay emphasis upon the moral worth of religious practices. Their essential values lies in the conformity to custom which creates in the minds of the worshipers an abstract sense of sanctity and sanction. When we argue with them in the name of justice and humanity it is contemptuously ignored for as I have said the moral appeal of the cause has no meaning for them.”
Tagore in the same letter, also shared his ideas about Shantiniketan – prayer hall ” As to the Shantiniketan prayer hall it is open to all peoples of every faith. Just as its doors do not shut out anybody so there is nothing in the simple form of worship which excludes peoples of different religions ”
In another letter to Mahadev Desai ( 4 January1936 ), discussing on the conversion of Harijans to Sikhism, Tagore took a firm secular stand and I quote him ” I am hardly concerned about the political aspect of the case – Whether they vote as Hindus or Sikhs is, according to me, of much lesser importance than what affects our humanity and forms our mental attitude towards our fellow beings…My father often use to offer his worship in Amritsar Gurudwara, where I daily accompanied him but I never could imagine him at Kali Temple in Calcutta. Yet in his culture and religion he was a Hindu and in his daily living he maintained a purer standards of Hinduism than most of those who profess it by words of mouth and pollute it in their habits” Tagore’s emphasis on maintaining the purer standards of Hinduism and to shun hypocrisy is particularly relevant now when we are observing a rising tide of communal – hate – politics in the name of Hinduism, this politics in garb of Hinduism is by no means gel with the basic Hindu standards, let alone its purer standards.
In March 1940 Gandhi visited Shantiniketan for the last time, Mahadev Desai accompanied him. They visited various departments of Shantiniketan. In China Bhawan ( Department of Chinese Culture ) Gandhiji was told that” the Chinese children felt quite at home undeterred by the language difficulty” Let me share an excerpt from Desai’s report on this visit which was published in Harijan ( March 9, 1940 ). This will further prove my point that Tagore was pluralist.
” In the section of Islamic culture, Gandhiji was delighted to see an original manuscript transcribed in his own beautiful calligraphic hand by that Philosopher Prince – Dara Sikhoh, who through his mysticism arrived at a catholicity and breadth of religious outlook that was unheard of in those days and is rare even in our own. In a monographed published by the department we were told how he patronised men of all denominations, saints, theologians, philosophers and poets of every creed and community, studied sanskrit, become deeply interested in Vedanta and yoga philosophy, initiated himself into the practices of yoga. He was nevertheless a true Mussalman. In the lengthy introduction to the Upanishads which he himself translated into Persian, he has explained how he was led to their study through his search after reality…He searched for reality no matter in what language and in quest of truth, in the higher stages of its realisation, religion is of no matter…As Dr Yusuf Hussain has pointed out ” He was actuated by a desire to prove that Islam and Hinduism in appearances so fundamentally dissimilar, are essentially the same, both represents spiritual efforts of men to realise God”
To conclude my argument I would like to quote the Vice-President of India M. Hamid Ansari ” Rabindranath Tagore heralded the cultural rapprochement between communities, societies and nations much before it became the liberal norm of conduct. Tagore was a man ahead of his time.”
O Bengal live up to the ideals of Rabindranath Tagore, we need to restore that all – inclusive socio-religious ideals of Tagore. We must resist any form of assault on that Idea Of Bengal.
Photo Tagore Paintings